“This is not your typical Barnes and Noble poetry reading.”
With that scene setter, Alchemy Poetry’s Ebo Barton stood under the red butterfly-shaped sculpture adorning the stage at Seattle's Jimi Hendrix Park earlier this month and laid out some audience participation ground rules—yes, it’s ok to clap, snap, and cheer—for Poets in the Park: BIPOC Voices, which saw a few hundred mostly well-spaced and masked poetry lovers dot the grass on a glorious July day in front of the Northwest African American Museum (NAAM) with the mighty Tahoma shimmering in the background.
Not that anyone has been to a reading at a Barnes and Noble recently. The downtown outpost of the chain bookstore closed in January, a harbinger of the pandemic-induced retail apocalypse to come. But out here amidst the cedars and paulownias, Jimi Hendrix Park is thriving and pointing the way to how Seattle’s parks and public spaces can serve as cultural venues in the new normal. In short, three years after the park’s inauguration—a torturous saga that took over a decade to come to fruition—the Central District swath of green has finally come into its own as a neighborhood anchor for this summer of activism and education.
It was the terminus of King County Equity Now’s Juneteenth parade, the setting for Not This Time’s Juneteenth rally (and an appearance by Mayor Teargas), and the venue for Black Collective Voice’s Page Engage series of reading discussions. Last Friday, Northwest Film Forum partnered with the Black Collective Voice, which was born in CHOP to unite Black organizers during the heady events of June, and screened the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. (For those who caught CHOP’s first couple night showings of Ava DuVernay’s Thirteenth and Paris is Burning, that was the long awaited follow-up outdoor movie night.)
On Saturday, August 1, Jimi Hendrix Park may just see its biggest summer event yet when it hosts the Umoja Parade March & Day of Unity. (Historical footnote: Umoja is today’s incarnation of the Central District’s East Madison Mardi Gras parade, which began in the late 1940s and predates Seafair. The Blue Angels and hydroplanes may not be coming to town this year, but damned if Umoja is going to quit.)
“The work we were doing might have began at CHOP but it couldn’t end at CHOP,” said Tarika Powell, an organizer with Black Collective Voice, which helped put on the poetry reading along with other familiar names from CHOP like Pay The Fee Tiny Library, Mutual Aid Books, and Front Line Hot Foods.
“What’s beautiful about doing it here is that Capitol Hill around the East Precinct wasn’t a green space,” Powell said. “Green spaces have a positive impact on your mental health, well being, and stress levels. It’s a space of relaxation, which was not necessarily true of CHOP.”
As protester and police clashes flared up again last weekend, Jimi Hendrix feels like a veritable oasis in comparison to pepper spray and blast balls. (Not that there aren’t some moments of tension. There are reports on social media that Central District activist Omari Tahir-Garrett has been evicted from his sidewalk occupation in front of NAAM, a building with which he has a long and convoluted history.)
For Alchemy Poetry’s Ben Yisrael, the Jimi Hendrix Park event was only his second poetry reading in front of a live audience since lockdown, and an outdoor twist on the poetry collaborative’s more typical indoor venues like Wa Na Wari, NAAM, and local cafes. In June, Alchemy threw down at the Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Memorial Park, a woefully overlooked gem of a public space that could also have a future as a powerful performance venue.
“Nothing can match this,” he said of the real-time feedback of a live audience after he read a few poems. “The only human energy and community has been at art events and protests. This has been a really beautiful thing to be able to do stuff in parks.”
With its prominent stage, Jimi Hendrix Park was designed for live performances like these, but the Jimi Jams Jazz Concert series that launched shortly after its 2017 inauguration petered out. Overall the park has been fairly dormant in its first few years and continues to fundraise for its finishing touches. While the park was a popular place to picnic this past spring, it took the Black Lives Matter movement to awaken its potential.
“It’s important to do events at spaces that honor the people who came before us and trail blazed the way,” Yisrael said.
Cities and towns across the country are scrambling to tear down monuments to white supremacy and erect symbols of Black excellence. In Jimi Hendrix Park, the musician’s sister had the foresight to push the powers that be to honor our most musically gifted native son.
“I listened to his Woodstock rendition of the National Anthem daily before heading to CHOP,” Powell, an avowed Hendrix superfan, said. “It is still so layered and gets so much into the feelings that you feel as a Black American who is part of this country but also so maltreated by this country.”